Collecting and interpreting ‘soft’ data: A perspective on how to approach the generation and analysis of opinion based information, designed to support the answering of ‘market’ questions across professional services.

“Nature” is what we see—
The Hill—the Afternoon—
Squirrel—Eclipse—the Bumble bee—
Nay—Nature is Heaven—
Nature is what we hear—
The Bobolink—the Sea—
Thunder—the Cricket—
Nay—Nature is Harmony—
Nature is what we know—
Yet have no art to say—
So impotent Our Wisdom is
To her Simplicity.                      

                        – Emily Dickinson

One of my favourite memories of 2016 was witnessing a bee swarm for the first time. I was digging my allotment* when I heard what sounded like the distant rumble of a jet engine behind me. Thousands of bees were hovering in the sky just meters away. Sedately, the swarm eventually settled on a well-positioned tree, in two clumps at first, before, hours later, coalescing into one.

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The next day the apiarist came along and collected the new queen and her budding nest by (quite brilliantly I thought, but as it turns out completely in line with standard procedure) placing a cardboard box on the ground directly beneath the branch they clung to before whacking it, near the trunk, with a sturdy stick especially selected for the task.

The whole ball of bees fell with a thump into the box, which was duly sealed up and carted away to start a new colony**. I was struck by the at once complete certainty and wonderful variability of the whole thing; Why that tree? But of course a tree. Why favour that branch? Undoubtedly a combination of subtle benefits only a bee could fully appreciate, the bark, the angle of the sun, a coincidental gust of wind perhaps.

Why do they all fall together? ‘Because that’s just what bees do, Gareth’. Where on earth is Agnes taking that box, and where did she come from anyway? I’ll ask her, too late, she’s gone…

A key challenge to generating a value adding report within professional services rests in the inherent differences found between, on the one hand, the structural realities of the world of business and, on the other, the often personality driven preconceptions of the myriad players acting within and upon those structures.

Using desktop research tools, alongside discussions with well-placed individuals, competent researchers are able to identify and/or confirm the ‘concrete’ structures and events which exist; legal constraints, regulatory frameworks, service range, rigid/contractually binding panel appointments, fee agreements, the precise amount of iron being mined in a particular quarter***, the specific work undertaken by a particular lawyer (etc… etc… ad infinitum…). Separately, the same researchers can, by speaking to the right people in the right way, develop a picture from the ground up of how ‘The Market’ perceives the individuals at hand and the relationships in play. It is fascinating to note how often the data generated by a ‘Structuralism’ inspired method of mapping/understanding a market and a ‘Grounded’ theory based method (more on both of these later) of doing the same thing, come up with a disparity in terms of where the power to drive/direct value really sits. The simplest example perhaps being when a source expresses a sincerely held view that a set of clients will follow a particular lawyer if they move firms, but we find a structural barrier in the way which proves too difficult to overcome in practice.

In this way we see data generated which underpins two distinct areas of understanding; that which pertains to ‘concrete’ clearly defined market structures, on the one hand, and, on the other, that which informs our knowledge of more ‘fluid’ market forces including both relationships between individuals and the perceptions which others have of those relationships. However, one of the things which make professional services unusual from a research perspective is the way in which these fluid structures can harden into a third type of structure, which can often have significant market influence and can be more durable than the more obviously concrete type; when relationships run so deep that they come to be as reliable for predicting market flow as the actual structures which underpin the market. At its most basic level this is because lawyers (and others) are valued for both what they can do and, essentially, how they go about doing it.

People sometimes talk about ‘The lawyer as a commodity’, but it is interesting to note that when speaking to clients about a particular lawyer ‘The lawyer as a human being’ is often seen as equally, in fact almost always more, important (baseline skills assumed!). The ‘technical commodity for delivering product/advice X’ therefore is one with sticky edges and, over time, bankers, accountants, lawyers, real estate agents etc… coalesce to form a mutually protective and value-adding market. Arguably these groups become so embedded within one another that, to all intents and purposes, they actually become the market.

Professional services organisations assessing qualitative research should be looking for two things:

First, information which provides data relating to specific questions; all good qualitative research is based on there either being a question which needs to be answered or terms of a question which need to be more fully understood. It is the role of a research business to provide information to allow clients to better answer these questions or to clarify their terms of reference (as an aside, this is different to the role of a management consultant who you might hope/expect to answer the question for you!).

Second, information which promotes better navigation of the grey areas which exist between the concrete framework of business which we all must (should) operate within and the relationships between individuals, teams and businesses operating across those pathways. It is in this ‘zone of uncertainty’ that real opportunity often presents itself. Recognising the direction of travel of these relational structures (who sits within them and where, how they operate and where the loose threads may be) gives businesses a competitive advantage; good information leads to better decision making, developing the right product, hiring the right people with the right expertise, focusing on the right relationships, investing in the right disciplines and jurisdictions. This is particularly helpful in ‘emerging’ markets, be they geographical, technical or driven by some other change/development (such as succession planning issues in a competitor, or a new regulatory regime exposing a weakness in an existing network), since these are generally the markets where there is less of a requirement to displace an existing relational structure, and more of an opportunity to shape the formation of that structure from the outset, to the benefit of your own business.

In order to write research which fulfils these two criteria, it is essential for researchers to recognise the separation of, and interplay between, the practical structures which form the framework for markets and the interpersonal and inter-business relationships which serve as the engine within. Those researchers who can piece together the inevitable inconsistencies and variations between how the market ‘should’ operate and how it ‘does’ operate, can provide significant value to clients. It is also worth noting the flexibility this requires from a technical standpoint, with the best researchers able to move between the different types of approach required; On the one hand a Structuralism based methodology which begins with a preconceived framework and applies data generated about individuals/relationships to that model; On the other hand a Grounded theory inspired methodology, starting with as few preconceptions as possible and allowing the data generated to almost entirely drive our understanding of a situation/market.

Both of these approaches require an appreciation of nuance and an insightful, intelligent and balanced approach. Arguably the real skill, however, rests in holding both in one’s mind at the same time, to highlight the points of discord or compromise, and to do so in such a way as to fairly account for the ever-present challenges of confirmation bias and sample size/reliability.

In his article earlier this month ED Partner Daniel Watts wrote about the need for grown up discussion, in politics and in business, and highlighted the danger of a he who shouts loudest, wins’ mentality. This resonated with me because I see (from the 10 years’ worth of reports we have generated for clients across an almost unfeasibly wide range of topics!) that our best work comes where clients have both a question we can help them to answer but also an appreciation that there may be other questions out there which we will uncover. An element of flexibility to explore a theme on behalf of a client, with the license to follow interesting lines of enquiry which present themselves by really listening to the market, is something which we appreciate and which generally leads to a more thought-provoking data set.

What makes research within professional services most interesting for the Edward Drummond & Co team is the opportunity to shine a light into the relationship between the figurative ‘branch and bees’; the hard structures and the fluid variables; the markets, players and all of the subtle interconnected relationships which shape, and which can come to define, our markets. The ‘ball of bees’, once fully formed, becomes more important than the branch to the integrity of the hive, but without the branch the hive would not have formed at all – it is an over-simplistic analogy of course, but in recognising this distinction researchers can take the first step in adopting the open-minded and balanced approach to assessing markets and players which adds real value to the complex decision-making requirements of their clients.

> About Edward Drummond

*There is something about working through a patch of earth which is pleasingly cathartic; with the right amount of application you have a 100% certainty of obtaining your desired outcome (unless it rains of course, but then there’s always tea in the shed!) – I thoroughly recommend it.

**For more on bees in London, check this out http://www.lbka.org.uk/)

*** Or, for that matter, the precise amount of anything physical, being processed in any way, over any period of time!

2017-01-24T13:51:22+00:00 January 24th, 2017|